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A Fickle, Fickle Thing

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“Oh look- it’s the murderers.”

Queen heard the words and didn’t react, focusing on the book in front of her even as her brain went to work formulating a retort.

First, she thought, I’m the only member of Class Zero here, so that would be “murderer”. Second, all of your extremely scant evidence regarding our guilt is coming from the same people who invaded our country and butchered our people, never mind the fact that they wiped the Lorican Alliance off the map. So perhaps you should offer up a bit more critical thought regarding our supposed guilt.

She thought it, and said nothing. The Crystarium was a library in all but name, and she wouldn’t be responsible for causing a scene.

This had been going on for nearly a week now.

It wasn’t so much that she was offended at the concept of people being stupid enough to believe everything they heard without question- it was that they all blindly believed the word of Milites, of all people and places. She supposed the Concordian king’s input had done something to legitimize their claims.

Still, that Agito cadets believed it was astonishing on a number of levels.

Other members of Class Zero had been reporting varying levels of hostility from their classmates over the course of the week. The vast majority of it manifested in dirty or frightened looks, occasionally the odd rude comment, but a few had been more direct and physical in nature.

One (incredibly stupid) boy had directly confronted Nine, evidently wanting a fight and knowing he would get one; and he did, as well as three days in the infirmary. A girl from Class Twelfth had been informed that her brothers would be involved in the next offensive, likely against Concordia; this had prompted her to pull Seven’s hair and spit on her shirt. Apparently Seven had been too shocked to respond, and the girl’s friends had managed to drag her away before things could escalate further.

There had been other, lesser events with Ace, Cinque, Machina, and Jack; getting roughly shoved in the hallway (on “accident”, of course) or having books or other items stolen or damaged when they weren’t looking. Queen strongly suspected that Trey and Eight hadn’t been targeted as a matter of luck; King, Cater and Sice weren’t the sort of people anyone with half a brain would go after; and Deuce and Rem were too sweet, too kind for people to justify going after directly.

Queen was untouched as of yet, though she expected that that would change at some point. The idea put her on edge, but she made a point of looking unconcerned, unfazed- she had no intention of allowing their harassers the pleasure of seeing her react poorly to their behavior.

Really, Queen was surprised to find that this troubled her at all. Prior to the beginning of the war, their interactions with other Agito cadets (and, come to think of it, most people their age) had been restricted at best and non-existent at worst, and so she had rarely given much thought to the opinions of those beyond Mother and Class Zero.

Perhaps it was the injustice of it, of being accused and convicted in the court of public opinion of something they hadn’t done that upset her.

Or perhaps it was the fact that those Class Fourth girls that she had gotten to know over the last few weeks had, since the incident in Milites, been ignoring her and sending her cold looks. Perhaps it was the fact that their classmates, the ones she had become gradually more comfortable with as the war progressed, were suddenly pushing them away and making it clear that Class Zero had once again entered the ranks of “those freaks we want nothing to do with”.

It shouldn’t have mattered to her, and she knew it. All that should have mattered was Mother, Class Zero, and her duty to Rubrum and the Crystal. The petty aggressions of students who clearly had no idea what they were talking about- she should have been above that. But as time went on, she found that she wasn’t. At all.

But Queen pretended she was. She didn’t dignify the whispers and the dirty looks with responses. She pretended to shrug off the girls and their glares like she didn’t have even the vaguest of cares about their opinions. She kept to her studying and her training and her reading, and she worked on walling herself off from those around her, that would seek to disrupt her development.

As it happened, that wall was only mental. There wasn’t much it could do about physical damage.

Queen had been sitting perfectly still at her table for the last hour or so; but as she turned to change her position, to move her head, she realized that something was wrong- it was carrying a little extra weight.

Unfortunately, she only realized what it was once she’d reached back to touch her hair and her hand came back sticky.

Queen couldn’t stop her mouth from dropping open slightly, and she reached back again, carefully this time- and yes, yes, her hair was absolutely coated in a thick, sticky substance. The worst of it seemed to be concentrated on the lower parts of her hair, namely, the part that she would not have felt someone tampering with.

Especially since- and Queen cursed herself silently- she had been doing such a good job at blocking everything and everyone around her out.

Judging from the smell, it was a particular breed of tree sap that was commonly used in childish pranks around Akademeia, whether it was gluing someone’s hands together while they were asleep, or dipping someone’s hair into a case of it from behind (in lieu of ink, which didn’t do much if your target was dark-haired). As the sap itself was incredibly sticky, but also not terribly dense in nature, it’s not the first time someone had had their hair stuck together like this and not immediately noticed.

But it’s certainly the first time it’s happened to Queen.

A week ago, no one would have dared.

Her breathing grew shallow, and her hand developed a slight tremor as she examined the damage. For a long, horrible moment, she felt unstable enough that she might scream. Or worse, cry.

But Queen caught herself, forced her appearance back into one of complete control. She sighed loudly (perhaps a bit too loudly) and rolled her eyes, flipping her hair over her shoulder nonchalantly and getting to her feet. She swept out of the Crystarium like she owned it, head held high moving off towards Class Zero’s rooms at a pace that would not suggest any particular distress.

It was only when she’d shut the door to the hall of their dorms behind her that her head started to drop, her eyes started to water, and she all but ran to her room before anyone else could see her, slamming the door behind her. She threw the books on her bed and finally, finally, let out a choked sob.

When they were in Milites, she could handle the jeers from the soldiers, the shouts of “red demons” and “monsters” and dozens of other words much too harsh to repeat. At the end of the day, it was Milites who had started all of this. It was Milites who had banged down the door and started butchering the citizens of Rubrum, and who had annihilated the entirety of Lorica and its people. What Queen did was in vengeance of that, and to ensure that it would not happen again.

But this- she can’t handle this. She can’t handle being ridiculed, harassed, and spit on (literally and figuratively) for something that she didn’t do, never mind something that she didn’t endorse in the slightest.

Because it didn’t make sense, and there was nothing that set her off more than something that just didn’t make sense. They had spent weeks defending Rubrum, driving Milites out of their territory, and Milites were the ones lodging these ridiculous accusations that just happened to make the driving force behind Rubrum’s liberation look like a bunch of war-mongering criminals themselves.

Why couldn’t their classmates understand this? Why couldn’t they wrap their heads around how illogical it was to think Class Zero had had anything to do with this, that even if they had done it, they would only have been acting on the orders of the Consortium? Why did it not occur to them that believing the word of Milites, of all people, was a new, large step towards insanity? Why couldn’t they just think for a few seconds?

Queen stepped in front of the mirror, twisting and turning and pulling at her hair to see just how bad the damage was. She pulled at the strands, trying to see how badly the sap had stuck them together, trying to see if maybe it hadn’t set in too much. But her heart sank when she realized that it had, that someone had probably done long enough ago that it had had a chance to dry completely.

I’ll have to cut it, she thinks, tears flowing anew. I’ll have to cut it, and I’ll have to cut it short. She was fairly certain that was what the other girls had had to do.

Queen had very view vanities. She liked to look clean and neat, and that was about the most she put into her appearance. But her hair, she’d always had long hair- and the idea of cutting it, especially under these circumstances, was enough to make her start crying again.

“Damn it, damn it, it’s just hair! It’s just hair…” She whimpered, slapping a hand over her mouth and trying to stop the tears. Enough, it’s not that big of a deal! It’s just hair! It’ll grow back!

But there was no comfort in it, especially since whoever had done it was going to see her tomorrow and know exactly why she’d had to cut it. And they would probably spread it around, and then everyone would know and that would make everything so much worse than it already was-

There was a knock on the door, and Queen started.

“Go away,” She snapped. “I’m busy.”

Almost predictably, whoever was on the other side ignored her and opened the door anyway. Completely typical of most of her classmates.

Though it was admittedly less typical of King.

He stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. “Yikes, what happened to you?”

Out.” Queen snarled, turning away quickly so that he couldn’t see the tears on her face, or in her eyes. Strangely enough, him barging in had helped a bit; being angry took energy away from the sadness, made it easier to hold back the tears.

“Easy. Didn’t mean anything by it.” King ambled over, and Queen quickly started rubbing at her cheeks to do away with the tear-tracks. She jumped when she felt him grab a bit of her hair, lifting it up to examine it. “Lose a fight with a Zabaione?”

“No.”

“A Kukulcan?”

No.”

“A-”

“I did not lose a fight with anything, King, as you damn well know that none of us has been given leave to go beyond Akademeia since coming home.” She snapped, wrenching her hair out of his grip and pulling it over her shoulder. That was a mistake- the sap was largely dry, but some parts were still damp enough that it sank into her jacket.

“It was a joke, Queen.”

“I’m not in the mood.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

King didn’t say anything else, but he didn’t leave either. He stayed right behind her, probably getting a better look at her hair.

For a time, Queen kept silent as well, desperately wanting to avoid a conversation but knowing what to do or say. The anger had drained away surprisingly quickly, and really, she’d never had it in her to be aggressive with King. He was too pleasant, to relaxed, and never mean-spirited. She’d always gotten on well with him.

Finally, he said, “Huh. Sap, right?”

Queen sniffed. That seemed to speak for itself. “I’ll have to cut it.”

From what little she could see of him in the mirror, he shrugged. “Everything comes out with something. Just might take a while.”

It seemed so simple when he said it, like it wasn’t anything so serious. Queen couldn’t see King losing his composure over something like this. He’d probably scare the hell out of them- he did have a reputation to maintain, after all- but he wouldn’t cry. He wouldn’t be anything more than vaguely irate over it.

It wasn’t just that hair didn’t matter to him, it was that the opinions of others didn’t especially matter to him either, not in this respect, anyways. He knew what was true, and if others believed the opposite and spit on him for it? Oh well.

Queen wished she could feel the same. She wished so much that she could just stop caring.

“What would you recommend, then?”

“Shampoo, and patience. I can lend you a hand, if you want.”

Queen’s shoulders sank with relief. “…Alright.”

He patted her arm. “Good.”

[---]

King was surprisingly good at working with hair.

It took maybe half an hour of King sitting behind her, both of them perched on the edge of the tub in the bathroom she shared with Seven, and he’d already managed to free half of the affected hair of the stickiness. It was rumpled and wavy and would need a serious brushing, but she wouldn’t need to cut it.

When she mentioned her surprise, he shrugged again. “Had my fair share of run-ins with messy things. My hair’s not exactly short either.”

Queen sighed. “Whatever the case, I’m quite glad for your prowess. I thought I would have to hack it all off.” That she wouldn’t have to parade around Akademeia with evidence that she hadn’t even noticed someone dripping sap all over her hair was a gift she didn’t think she’d get.

“So… Somebody’s got a grudge, yeah?” King inquired. Queen’s eyes slid shut.

“‘Somebody’ implies one person. I believe there are a number of people with a grudge at this point.”

“They’ll get over it.”

“Or they won’t, and we stay the outsiders for the rest of our time in Akademeia.”

“I don’t see why you care. You don’t need those idiots.”

Queen reached up and rubbed her neck. “It’s not a matter of needing them. It’s a matter of knowing that…” She sighed again. “…that we're being held at arm’s length for something we didn’t do, and have no control over. Remember when we first came here, and they thought we were a bunch of arrogant freaks who only became cadets because of Mother?”

“Yeah, I do. And they got over it.”

Queen rolled her eyes. “I’m just saying, it was easier when they knew better. Life was easier. And in my defense, it’s typical of our age-group to seek acceptance from our peers.”

“You’re not typical.”

She blushed a bit. “Well.”

“I know what you’re saying. I’m saying that thinking about it too much is pointless. It won’t make anyone forget this, and it won’t make them any less suspicious of us. That’ll come with time.” He paused. “And maybe after knocking some heads in.”

Queen turned slightly to see his face, eyebrow raised. “Militesi heads, or our classmates’?”

He shrugged again. “Whatever works.”

Queen considered that, considered that his words had some wisdom to them, even if they didn’t take into account the amount of harassment they’d likely face in the meantime. That even once their classmates were proven wrong, the feelings they’d acquired for Class Zero in the meantime during this estrangement of theirs might linger, unwilling to let go of something they’d been so convinced of.

In any case, at least she could derive some comfort in the knowledge that she had thirteen others on her side (She included Mother in this, and Machina was debatable for the moment), and that at the very least, she wouldn’t have to endure any further harassment alone.

And from the looks of it, she’d have her hair too. It was unbearably messy-looking, frizzy even, but at least she’d be able to keep it.

“Thanks,” She said, softly, as King finished and they began to clean up. “I know who to go to in the event that this ever happens again.”

“Nah, it probably won’t.” King tucked his hands into his pockets nonchalantly. “Whoever it is will probably spill to their friends, and it’ll get around. And then they might wake up one night to a voice saying, ‘we have arrived’ right next to their heads.”

Queen blinked. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“Jack was thinking- after the thing with Seven- that maybe we should start retaliating a bit. Can’t say I disagree.”

Queen rolled her eyes, fingers playing almost compulsively with her damaged hair. “That’s not necessary. I can look after myself.”

King nodded easily, strolling towards the door. “Yeah, you can. But sometimes, it’s nice to have friends take care of things for you.” And with that, he ambled out of her room just as easily as he’d entered.

Queen let out a scoff that sounded more like a chuckle than anything else. Well… For now, she supposed she could handle a bit of retaliation, a bit of immaturity from King and Jack.

After all, there were worse things to endure.